10% of a PhD is down to brains, 10% luck and 80% is stubbornness and perseverance. Unless you really, really want it, you’re going to have a tricky time.
1. The first thing, and this is really vital, is to make sure you understand the project. You need to be able to explain every single experiment to your mum/10 year old cousin and have them understand you. “Because my supervisor told me to” is not a valid answer in the viva! A great tip for getting to grips with your project is to give regular talks, plus you could try entering writing competitions aimed at PhD students, even if your writing isn’t that great.
2. Read the literature. Don’t leave that massive pile of papers till the week before your viva, as you’ll probably find out that someone else has already done the same thing as you back in 1978. And it will probably have been your examiner who did it. You have to be the world’s expert on your project, even if it is just an obscure earthworm protein that only 3 people have ever heard of.
3. Read around the literature. Keep some perspective on your project and keep in mind why it is important in the big scheme of things. A malaria vaccine is great, but if you don’t know the name of the little buzzy thing that transmits the parasite, then you’ll fail the viva! If you have an opinion on the latest news in your field, you’ll impress your examiners by showing that you care about your subject area outside of the test tube.
4. Have your own ideas. Your boss won’t think of everything and if you’re not correcting/arguing with them by the end of your 3/4 years, you might have problems when your examiners start asking difficult questions. If you read enough papers, you’ll come up with great suggestions for developing your project.
5. Be focused. Your thesis should tell a story – have clear goals in your mind and stick to them. All the proper controls and repeats are far more important than having tried to cure HIV, TB and the common cold all at once. But don’t put all your eggs in one basket – try to use different methods to confirm results and be aware of all the strengths and shortcomings of different techniques.
6. Be critical. If something goes wrong, chances are it was something you did. I demonstrated for an undergraduate cloning practical where the students believed they were cloning a gene into a vector, when in actual fact we had given them uncut plasmid and water in all the reagent tubes. Yet 20% still got no colonies on their transformation plates and blamed it on the ligase. Be 100% sure it wasn’t your fault before you claim to have disproved DNA and always look for alternative explanations.
7.Talk to others. Force your boss have regular meetings to discuss the overall direction of your work but rely on other lab members and fellow PhD students for day to day support. Not only does this mean there is always someone to sit with you in the disabled toilet while you while you cry over another failed Northern blot, but they might also be able to help with a new technique or come up with some vital control that you’ve missed.
8. Be organised. Write to-do lists and tick them off as you go along. Always write up your lab book every night (not at the end of the week), whether your experiments have worked or not. If you one day decide to sell your soul to industry, you will be forced to keep lab books in such excruciating detail that you will horrified if you haven’t got into the habit of recording everything. When you begin, start a freezer stock, primer and clone recording system and stick to it. Treat every gel as if it is a world-changing result and take its photo. Because if things don’t work out to plan, you’re going to end up writing up using those failed gels to illustrate your thesis.
9. Know when to stop. You’re boss will probably let you slog away for an extra year with no money if you give him the chance. You don’t have to do everything – one of the aims of a PhD is to turn you into an independent researcher, so have a look at the work of post-docs in your lab and use them as a gauge of how well you are doing. Remember to bear in mind that most people run over 3 years and you will have to be pretty lucky to have done enough within the scheduled time. A rough estimate is that you’ll need to work twice as hard as the post-docs in your lab for at least 3 years to be able to breeze through that viva!
10. Don’t expect too much. Everyone says this, and every PhD student refuses to believe them, but you really don’t need amazing results to pass (at least not in the UK were you can get through the viva without any positive results at all)! There isn’t any magic secret that you’re told at the end of your viva that makes every experiment from then on work perfectly. Examiners will understand that sometimes proteins just really want to turn themselves into an insoluble mess and refuse to be refolded. So long as you have done everything in a logical order and thoroughly explored each failed experiment, then you’ll be fine.